I wrote a hymn a couple of months ago, to the tune ‘King’s Lynn’ (aka O God of earth and altar), and it turned out that quite a lot of people didn’t know the tune, and asked if it would go to anything else. The simple answer was, it can go to most 7676D* tunes.
(*If you’ve never known what those numbers and letter mean, they’re a shorthand description for the metre, in this case, it means that the first line is 7 syllables long, the next one is 6 syllables, etc, and the D stands for ‘double’, meaning that it’s an 8 line hymn in which the metre is the same in the second half as in the first half. Clear as mud. What it doesn’t tell you is that my particular words have an upbeat (technically known as an anacrusis) which means that the accent falls on the second syllable rather than the first – in the trade, this is known as ‘iambic’. So the full description would be 7676D iambic. )
Another complication is that you can sometimes ‘fudge’ it so that a metre that technically has the wrong number of syllables can be used, by the judicious use of slurs and by splitting longer notes into two. Consider the last line of Londonderry air (O Danny Boy), which has 12 notes, of which three are usually slurred together – there is nothing to stop a hymnwriter removing that slur, and having a 12 syllable line instead of the usual 10. Consider also the very popular tune ‘slane’ (Lord of all hopefulness), of which the second line has a two-note upbeat, which is generally slurred – there is nothing to stop two very short syllables being used instead, as long as a congregation will be able to intuit that this is what’s going on at a first read-through.
But even if you find a tune for which the metre fits perfectly, will it have the right mood / vibe? Take ‘O Jesus I have promised’ as an example. It’s also 7676D iambic, and there are at least three tunes that are commonly used, each with their own personality. Two of those tunes would be fine for the hymn I wrote, and one would definitely not be, because it’s way to ‘bouncy’ and would jar horribly with the mood of the words.
My hymn was used in a broadcast act of worship a couple of weeks after it was written, and the producer used my nominated tune, King’s Lynn. But it’s about to be used in another broadcast, and this time the producer has gone with a different tune: Corvedale. As it happens it’s actually originally written for 8686D words, with a two-syllable up-beat – the addition of a slur at the start of each line means it fits my words really well in terms of metre. Corvedale is a triple time tune, so is instantly less foursquare, and as a major key tune (though with some lovely harmonies) it immediately feels more positive. What does this do to the words, and how we hear them? Under what circumstances might one prefer King’s Lynn? And when might Corvedale fit the bill?
A final factor to consider is whether the tune itself has cultural resonances that add something to the way we experience the words. Consider Richard Bewes’ metrical setting of God is our strength and refuge, which he set to the tune ‘Dambusters’ from the popular war film. This, I think, leads those who know the hymn to see that psalm in a particular light, casting the ‘refuge’ and ‘strength’ as a strongly defended castle, possibly surrounded by an army, rather than as something more peaceful and even homely. The tune can hugely affect how we hear the words. Consider also what it means to write a set of words to, say, ‘Thaxted’ (usually sung to the words, I vow to thee my country’) – that may well also affect how we experience the lyrics, and may also limit what sort of words are deemed appropriate for that particular tune. What feelings are evoked by tunes usually used in Christmas carols? Or for hymns often used at funerals? Are those resonances helpful, or do they conflict with what the new lyrics are trying to do? I found G K Chesterton’s words, O God of earth and altar, very powerful, and the tune King’s Lynn will always have GKC’s words somewhere in it for me – I was glad to borrow that frame of reference for my own words.
As it happens, there’s a third tune now being used for my own hymn, and it’s in a completely different idiom – mostly I write to well known traditional hymn tunes, and this new tune is a specially written one, by @mrwiblog in the style of a more modern worship song. And I really love it – it has energy, and the right balance of hope and emotion. You can listen to it here.
The lovely @artsyhonker also wrote another tune for some of my words – as a lyrics-writer there’s no greater honour than to have a composer write a tune specially, so a huge thank you to Kathryn, and to Chris.